5 Tips For The DP Whose Director Is Also The Lead Actor #DPNotes
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5 Tips For The DP Whose Director Is Also The Lead Actor #DPNotes

Nanah Mensah Jamund Washington

I just finished shooting the feature film, “Queen of Glory” directed, written and

starring Nana

Mensah. This was the first time I worked with a Director who was

also the lead in our film. Not only was Nana the lead, she was in every scene.

If I have the opportunity to shoot for a Director/Lead Actor

again, these are five tips I will definitely adhere to:

1. Create a Visual Shorthand – if you’ve been following my

articles, you know how much I love pre-production and pouring over reference

material with my directors. This is even more important if your director will

spend the majority of production in front of the camera. During prep, Nana gave

me over 10 films to watch or rewatch that emulated the style/tone she was going

for. I countered with more film references and photographs that I thought would

support her script and aesthetic. Once on set, if Nana said  “like the Big Lebowski shot” or “what

we liked in Darjeeling [Express]”, I knew what to do next.

Aside: when

it comes to reference material, my director and I will often formulate the look

of a film based on established works of art. The colors of this painting. Mixed

with the camera movement of that film. But with the lens choices of this

photographer. But maybe you, the Director or the Production Designer would

rather create original works of art to serve as a visual reference. See Akira

Kurosawa’s amazing storyboards for “Ran”. Or read about Production Designer, Dante

Ferretti’s work on “Gangs

of New York” and his recent

awe-inspiring show at MOMA, “Dante

Ferretti: Designing for the Big Screen”.

2. Rules of Your Visual Language. Once you and the Director

have narrowed down your reference material, your likes and dislikes, the

“rules” will be self-evident. I won’t give away all of our secrets yet, but

each of the films Nana liked treated camera movement in a similar way and

approached color in a similar fashion. In prep, you and your Director should

come up with a list of rules for your film. For instance: only use the color purple to signify death or an

eyelight to foreshadow “not guilty” (a personal favorite from the genius film “12 Angry Men”).

If you lose a location, lose a few hours and need to reimagine

a scene on the spot, this list of agreed upon rules will cut short discussion

on what needs to be done next. This predetermined set of rules is also a

safeguard preventing the final film from emulating your, the DP’s, taste over

the director. See my previous article on how those same rules

will be supportive in post production.

 3. Second Set of Eyes on the Monitor. Our producer, Jamund

Washington, was almost always by monitor protecting Nana’s vision as

it related to direction, writing and performances. Even if you, the DP, have a

strong background in directing and actors, that additional person keeps the

film from drifting into a film you’d personally like to direct. The Director

can ask a personal friend, co-writer, 1st AD, Scripty, Acting Coach or a Producer

to stand watch.

4. Stay in Your Lane. Resist the urge to offer unsolicited

comments about performance. This is not always easy. Film crews love to problem

solve and help make a film better/darker/funnier etc. But too many voices

offering their "two cents" creates an unhelpful and unwanted

cacophony on set. If other actors have questions for you about their

performance, steer them towards the Director or whomever is keeping watch by

the monitor. On the set of “Queen of Glory”, I tried to keep my comments about

blocking and acting only to what was affecting camera and what I thought would

give us a more dynamic frame.

5. On-Set Camera Tools to Inform the Director. Playback was an

invaluable tool. Relying too heavily on it eats up time. This is how we used

playback efficiently: Whenever all departments felt we had a successful take,

we showed it to Nana for her feedback and an "ok" to move on. Or if a

scene/shot was developing in a way we thought wasn’t aligning with the script,

and it was faster to demonstrate (playback) than discuss what wasn’t working.

Then Nana could don her Director’s hat and make the adjustments she saw fit.

The Artemis Director’s Viewfinder App was another

invaluable tool. I pride myself on instinctively knowing where to put the

camera and which lens to use. But taking photos of the monitor or playing

Nana’s stand-in so she could evaluate my choices was inefficient. I eventually

surrendered to my 1st AC’s (Jason Chau) suggestion to use the App. It was

a quick and easy way to show Nana our different lens options and speed up our

set-up time. Besides, I like to limit how frequently my ACs move the camera..

Earlier this year, we lost a great and extremely influential

Cinematographer, Gordon Willis. He shot eight of Woody Allen’s

films and is probably the best example of a Cinematographer creating a

signature look for a Director/Lead Actor. A little reading from the archives: “5 Tips from Master Cinematographer Gordon Willis

As always, I ask readers to share

their advice and experience in the comment section.

See my work and past articles at CybelDP.com and chat film with me at @cybeldp

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